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Craft of Writing, Fiction, My Novel, Pop Culture, The Writer's Life

A Lesson That Resonates After 500 Years

I watched a PBS/BBC program a few nights ago about Leonardo Da Vinci. Much like a good writer, he apprenticed his craft for years, and then took that experience and moved in directions never imagined before. One segment explained what made the Mona Lisa a great painting: it was a technique he developed over the years of applying paint in many layers. A white base paint, then layer after layer of color, each one semitransparent to let those underneath show through, over and over, until the skin of the Mona Lisa glowed like real skin. Unlike other painters of his day, he did not outline his subject first, but created his paintings whole, in what’s called sfumato—in the manner of smoke. He was also a man who was fascinated by science, mathematics, fashion and current events. And his paintings showed that he used all these influences in developing his art.

Mona_Lisa_smThis resonated with me, as I revise my “other” novel, a historical fiction, which follows events from the beginning of World War I through the perspectives of three characters. I find I am adding layer upon layer of causality and relationship. No wonder it’s taken years to put this book together.

It also reminded me of how the different modes of art have informed each other over the centuries. Leonardo’s revolutionary painting technique not only influenced the painters who came after him, it also inspired artists in other genres, such as writers, although Da Vinci was so far ahead of his time that it took many years before books as layered as his paintings were written.

But I can’t help thinking of the relationships among the arts and how they seem to follow each other’s leads in reflecting the world. Perhaps the most obvious example is the art of the early twentieth century, a period of tremendous political upheaval. As populations (especially in Europe) tore down centuries of monarchical tradition, replacing them with raw, imperfect and populist forms of government, so too did the arts dismiss traditional styles of painting, music and writing, in favor of works that reflected the chaos of the times: Dada in art, the dissonance of Ives, Schoenberg and others in symphonic music, and the modernism and minimalism of Eliot, Hemingway, Stein and many others.

So if art and culture continue to influence each other, what have we got today?

While traditional forms persist, we often get our news in sound bites and our prose in flash fiction. Popular culture is a mash-up of interest groups, manipulated by multi-national corporations so that art is translated into some kind of material consumption. As I review books and journals for LA Review, I see many queries for books that were clearly written to make a few bucks off the cultural trend of the week. And I see “literary” works so obscure and self-referential that I can’t begin to crack their code, which strike me as a protest against the crass commercialism of the mainstream.

If anything, this strikes me as reflective of the political polarization in which we now function, each faction existing in a vacuum and pretending the others don’t matter, that the only knowledge worth having is what’s already sanctioned by the party or the group. But I can’t help thinking that 500 years ago, Leonardo had it right, that art (and life) should be a synthesis of the knowledge from all disciplines and viewpoints to create something real and meaningful.

I’ll try to remember that as I write.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


15 thoughts on “A Lesson That Resonates After 500 Years

  1. I don’t know why, but it often happens that people oppose Da Vinci to Michelangelo, as if you couldn’t like both of them. I suppose if I had to choose, I would always choose Da Vinci, but the opposition has always puzzled me. Do you know what causes it? Is it some question of technique, lifestyle, or what? Maybe I’m just underinformed.

    Posted by shadowoperator | February 23, 2013, 2:26 PM
    • Actually, I was unaware of the debate about the two artists, so you can probably tell I wasn’t an art history major. But I did a little checking and there is ample evidence that a rivalry existed between the two, if for no other reason than the fact that they both lived and worked in Florence at the beginning of the 15th century. Professional jealousy, I guess.

      Posted by jpon | February 23, 2013, 8:58 PM
  2. I love, love that thing about the layers of skin. Beautiful. I think that image just got stuck in my head forever.

    Posted by girl in the hat | February 23, 2013, 6:02 PM
    • I agree. I was going to comment on it but she beat me to it.

      Posted by Adam Drake | February 23, 2013, 9:03 PM
    • The idea that he could just paint the Mona Lisa without sketching out beforehand is remarkable to me. It’s like trying to write a novel without an outline–an endeavor, I have to admit, that I undertook last year on my retreat. The book is about half written, but stuck, and needs a good deal of revision. But at least one can revise a book. A painting? Not so sure about that.

      I know that the Mona Lisa’s skin tones don’t look terribly real these days. Apparently the wood on which Da Vinci painted it is deteriorating.

      Posted by jpon | February 23, 2013, 9:06 PM
  3. Love the way you connect layers of paint to writing because you really do have to fill in gaps and layers and layers. And, yes, it takes years. Must say, I can’t wait to read your historical fiction. I enjoy losing myself in time.

    Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | February 23, 2013, 7:18 PM
    • Well I hope you get to read it. I’ve worked on this one (off and on) even longer than on Mr. Neutron. It would be nice to see it published since it’s also based (very loosely) on my grandfather’s career in vaudeville.

      Posted by jpon | February 23, 2013, 9:23 PM
      • Really? He must have been quite a character. Now I’m even more intrigued.

        Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | February 23, 2013, 9:47 PM
      • He was, as far as I know, but he didn’t marry until his mid-forties, so by the time I was old enough to ask about his career, he was in his 80s and his memory was very unreliable. I pieced a few things together from that and an old scrapbook, but most of what’s in the novel about him is pure fiction.

        Posted by jpon | February 23, 2013, 9:56 PM
  4. I always look forward to reading the Sat. Morn. Post. You do not disappoint!

    Posted by miriamagosto | February 23, 2013, 10:37 PM
  5. He painted layers and layers to create perfect skin. Now we paint layers and layers of makeup over skin seeking the perfection that was already there.
    Same with good writing. Layers of nuance to achieve a subtle feeling. Same with bad writing. Layers of tricks and tropes and the current clever fireworks to cover what might have been simply great.
    Oh, and I’m sure that the Mona Lisa didn’t bloom, fully realized without many, many sketches and exercises and fails. That “overnight sensation” was certainly the result of a huge amount of practice.
    (And I love SMP, too.)

    Posted by Jon Zech | February 24, 2013, 1:11 AM
    • Love the way you put that. Writers and artists (and even makeup artists) who forget the essentials are easily exposed.

      Feelin’ the love…

      Posted by jpon | February 24, 2013, 8:56 PM
  6. Thank you Joe. Leonardo and the other Renaissance artists are interesting models to think about for sure. I think the appeal of the short form, and of manga, and weird hybrid sorts of writing are connected to the clips and short takes, and very abbreviated forms of communication we are getting these days. but it’s all “narrow casted” instead of “broadcasted” and that’s arguably a danger. Still, I wouldn’t go back to Leonardo’s moment in history….

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | February 24, 2013, 8:23 PM
    • This is where I have difficulty reconciling art and popular culture, because their purposes are so different. Our economic model insists that everything have a monetary value, and if it doesn’t, it is neither art nor popular. The short forms, hybrids, manga et al have been embraced by the markets and the media because they are relatively simple to understand. But more complex forms often get marginalzed along the way, and that’s a cultural loss.

      But why not live in Leonardo’s time? Those people didn’t miss what they never knew. It certainly didn’t hurt old Leo.

      Posted by jpon | February 24, 2013, 9:16 PM

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